The influence of morphological variation on migration performance in a trans-hemispheric migratory songbird

Lawrence Lam 1 , Emily A. McKinnon 1 , James D. Ray 2 , Myrna Pearman 3 , Glen T. Hvenegaard 4 , James Mejeur 5 , Lauren Moscar 5 , Mackenzie Pearson 5 , Kelly Applegate 6 , Paul Mammenga 7 , John Tautin 8 , and Kevin C. Fraser 1
  • 1 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
  • 2 Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC, Pantex Plant, , Amarillo, TX 79120, USA
  • 3 Ellis Bird Farm, , AB, Lacombe, Canada
  • 4 Geography and Environmental Studies, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta, Camrose, Canada
  • 5 Disney’s Animals Science and Environment, , FL 32830, USA, Lake Buena Vista
  • 6 Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Department of Natural Resources, , 43408 Oodena Drive, Onamia, MN 56359, USA
  • 7 , 12345 396th Ave, Columbia, SD 57433, USA
  • 8 Purple Martin Conservation Association, Tom Ridge Environmental Center, , 301 Peninsula Dr., Ste. 6, Erie, PA 16505, USA


For long-distance migratory songbirds, morphological traits such as longer wings and a smaller body size are predicted to increase migration efficiency. Due to previous limitations in our ability to track the long-distance journeys of small-bodied birds, the relationship between morphology and start-to-finish migration performance has never been fully tested in free-living songbirds. Using direct-tracking data obtained from light-level geolocators, we examined the effects of morphological factors (wing and body size) on spring and fall migration performance (flight speed, duration of stopovers, total stopovers taken) of a widely distributed, trans-hemispheric migratory songbird, the purple martin (Progne subis) (n = 120). We found that smaller-bodied birds spent fewer days at stopovers along fall migration, but larger-bodied birds spent fewer days at stopover and took fewer stopovers during spring migration. More of the variation in fall migration performance was explained by morphology, as compared to spring migration, possibly indicating a larger influence of environmental conditions on spring performance. Overall, our results partially support long-standing and previously untested predictions regarding the influence of intrinsic factors on migration performance. Future research should examine the influence of environmental variation on migration performance as well as additional morphological traits that may contribute to migration performance.

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